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Ohio ‘heartbeat bill’ that would ban most abortions is sent to governor for signing

Ohio ‘heartbeat bill’ that would ban most abortions is sent to governor for signing
Democratic Ohio state Rep. Michele Lepore-Hagan wipes away tears during a hearing on the bill to ban abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected. (Brooke LaValley / Associated Press)

No topic seemed off-limits, including tales of back alleys and coat hangers, as abortion rights supporters in Ohio fought perhaps the last battle over a twice-vetoed bill to ban abortion at the first sign of a fetal heartbeat.

After nearly 10 years of fighting, Democrats let loose during the run-up to final House and Senate approval Wednesday with lessons from slavery, predictions of economic harm, references to the book of Genesis, and testimonials about their own rapes. Faith groups brandished banners and made pleas for religious tolerance. An advocate for reproductive rights threatened Republicans with the loss of young voters’ support in 2020. Opponents vowed to sue.

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Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican who took office in January, has said he will sign the bill; former GOP Gov. John Kasich vetoed it twice.

Five other states have passed similar bans, two of which have been blocked by courts. Since conservative Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court, Republican-led states have passed abortion restrictions in an effort to have the court overturn Roe vs. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion.

State Rep. Michele Lepore-Hagan, a Democrat from a storied Youngstown political family, shed tears during the debate, exasperated at a bill she said would harm Ohio and its future.

“I'm concerned that we will have companies that will choose not to locate here due to our oppressive laws. I’m concerned that doctors will leave the state of Ohio,” she said. “I'm concerned that our kids are going to leave, that we’re going to lose a large amount of young people who don’t want to live in an oppressive atmosphere.”

Opponents’ protests did nothing to budge a largely closed-mouthed GOP majority on the House Health Committee. Republicans won an 11-7 party-line vote that sent the bill to the full House, where it passed Wednesday.

Republican state Rep. Candice Keller called the legislation “the most compassionate bill we've ever passed.”

She rejected suggestions that everyone knows someone who has had, or will need, an abortion; that women will continue to have abortions, only unsafely; and even that reproductive rights are about women.

“If we are really about empowering the women of Ohio and empowering the women of this country, we will begin to tell the truth about the abortion industry and the enormous amount of profit that is made on the backs of women,” she said.

During floor debate Wednesday, two female representatives who said they had been raped criticized the bill for not making exceptions for rape and incest. Another lawmaker said her great-grandmother bled to death in a bathtub trying to self-administer an abortion.

Republican Derek Merrin, chairman of the house health panel, said he was following his conscience: “My heart, Mr. Speaker, tells me it's wrong.”

Prohibiting abortions at the first detectable heartbeat means prohibiting virtually all abortions, said Dr. Michael Cackovic, a specialist in maternal fetal medicine at Ohio State University Medical Center. He said current standard practice, which involves transvaginal ultrasound, can reliably detect a heartbeat five to six weeks into pregnancy.

“Essentially, that’s three to four weeks after conception, or one to two weeks after a missed period,” he said.

Cackovic said the heartbeat prohibition would require women who want an abortion to determine they’re pregnant using an over-the-counter pregnancy test and to race to have the procedure between four and five weeks into pregnancy.

“You're going to be doing more procedures and subjecting women to more procedures and medications to get abortions, because they’re rushing between that four and five weeks to get it accomplished,” he said.

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About a third of all pregnancies end in miscarriage, he said, so the law also would force many women who don't want to be pregnant to get abortions needlessly, when they might naturally have miscarried.

Democratic state Rep. Beth Liston, who is a pediatrician, said proponents’ hopes of challenging the viability standard upheld in the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision weren’t grounded in science. She said she favored the idea from Genesis that breath begins life.

“Simply put, you need lungs and a brain to live, and there's no technology in the world that will change that,” she said.

The House’s 56-39 vote sent the bill to the Ohio Senate, which agreed to House changes before sending the bill to DeWine.

The earliest bans on heartbeat abortion, in Iowa and North Carolina, have been blocked by the courts. Three more states — Mississippi, Kentucky and Georgia — have more recently passed bills. The Georgia bill has not yet been signed by the governor.

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